Saturday, July 12, 2014

Trevor-Roper told Ogburn: Stratfordian Shakespeare "implausible"

Hugh Trevor-Roper circa 1980 at Oxford. Photo by Graham Harrison courtesy The Sunday Times

Was Hugh Trevor-Roper an Authorship Doubter?
Letter to Charlton Ogburn, Jr., discovered by Alexander Waugh,
confirms that he was

by Oberon guest blogger John M. Shahan, Chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition

Most Oxfordians probably know that Hugh Trevor-Roper, (1914-2003) Baron Dacre of Glanton, Regius Professor of History at Oxford University and the British intelligence officer who tracked Hitler during World War II, wrote an article in which he marveled at the strange elusiveness of William Shakespeare. The following famous quote appears in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? (Shahan and Waugh, eds., 2013) and is paraphrased in the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt:
Of all the immortal geniuses of literature, none is personally so elusive as William Shakespeare. It is exasperating, and almost incredible, that he should be so. After all, he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance, in the well-documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. He wrote thirty-six plays and [154] highly personal sonnets. He was connected with some of the best-known figures in the most conspicuous court in English history. Since his death, and particularly in the last century, he has been subjected to the greatest battery of organised research that has ever been directed upon a single person. And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, still remains so close a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted. (“What’s in a Name?” Réalités, Nov 1962.)
So Trevor-Roper says that Shakespeare’s identity “can still be doubted,” but was he a doubter himself? One might surmise that he probably was, but since he didn’t actually say so it hasn’t been clear, until now. In July 2013, searching through the Trevor-Roper files on Shakespeare in the archives at Christchurch College, Oxford, Alexander Waugh found a letter that Trevor-Roper wrote to Charlton Ogburn, Jr., (1911-1998) dated 21 February, 1981, stating his view. Here are some excerpts:
My view is that the available evidence that the plays and poems were the work of William Shakespeare of Stratford is weak and unconvincing … not a shred of solid evidence connects the man with the works during his lifetime; the association of such works with such a man is, on the face of it, implausible; and the posthumous association of them, in the First Folio and in the Stratford Tomb, is inconclusive since there are legitimate questions concerning the motivation and production of the Folio and the original form of the Tomb. There are many suspicions legitimately adhering to all the later statements associating the man with the works, including the statements of Ben Jonson. Altogether, I consider the evidence of association to be slender, weak and implausible. There is not a single testimony which could not easily be re-interpreted if solid evidence were to turn up that the works were written by another man… In these circumstances of legitimate doubt, I believe that the proper course is to return to square one and examine the problem ab initio, without any preconceptions… I am heretical in that I allow that there is a real problem of authorship… I would not be surprised if evidence were to be discovered which destroyed the orthodox case.
He could hardly have made it any clearer where he stood, and just three years later Ogburn published The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality. Reading Trevor-Roper’s letter today, the present generation of Oxfordians can take pride in the fact that such an important British historian shared our doubts about Shakspere and expressed them so well.

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Graham Harrison photo of Hugh Trevor-Roper from The Sunday Times book review "One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper . . . " dated Jan. 26, 2014